How India plans to tackle climate crisis on farms

Footprints of climate change on India’s farms are now visible to the naked eye. A line-up of over 1,300 varieties of hardier crops will be the first line of defence.
Image for representation. (HT photo) PREMIUM
Image for representation. (HT photo)
Updated on Oct 05, 2021 03:46 PM IST
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In Sahibganj, a bucolic rice-growing district of Jharkhand, Maltos tribals are increasingly encountering a voracious new pest on their farms. The insects attack crops in sizeable swarms, residents say.

Changing temperature and rainfall patterns – in other words, extreme weather linked to the climate crisis – have “introduced” the new pest, an aphid, we should say) to traditional farms of the Maltos community, says researcher Hoinu Kipgen Lamtinhoi, who conducted a field study on a fellowship to understand the effects of the climate crisis in remote Indian communities.

These impacts are not limited to farming, but capable of stoking social conflicts as well. Lamtinhoi’s research shows that the crop-shriveling pests have led Maltos to shift into areas dominated by Santhal tribes downhill, leading to clashes.

“Jharkhand’s State Action Plan for Climate Change, too, flags these variations in weather and climate,” Lamtinhoi said.

The pests are not the only fallout of the changing climate.

Crop-damaging spring hailstorms have become common in central India, along with sudden spikes in temperature. In 2010, an unseasonal spell of heat wave in Punjab cut wheat yields by 26% that year, according to the Ludhiana-based Borlaug Institute.

Apple belts in Himachal Pradesh have been moving to higher altitudes for want of sufficient cold weather, according to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the country’s top farm-science body.

Nearly half of all Indians depend on a farm-derived income and agriculture contributes nearly 16% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August issued the UN climate science panel’s starkest warning yet about consequences of the climate crisis. It projected a bleak situation for India if problems are not mitigated -- such as melting glaciers, stronger droughts, killer heat waves, floods and storms, some of which are already being felt.

The footprints of the climate crisis on agriculture in India are now visible to the naked eye and authorities are planning to build resilient farms with a new array of hardier crops and technologies driven by data science and satellite-based imagery. The challenges, however, are steep, experts say.

ICAR has identified that of the 28 million hectares under wheat, about 9 million hectares is categorised as being prone to sudden heat stress. The country’s Economic Survey 2018 analysed weather patterns over the past six decades and found a long-term trend of “rising temperatures” and “declining average precipitation”.

“A lot of people debate climate change. Even if we don’t use these two words, there is sufficient evidence on the impact of changes in rainfall and temperature in India,” said Pramod Aggarwal, one of India’s top climate scientists and a former national professor at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

Aggarwal, who was the coordinating lead author for the chapter on food in the 4th Assessment Report of the IPCC, said proven adaptation technologies were now available.

One of the front-line defence mechanisms are improved seed varieties whose crops can withstand extreme weather, such as drought and flood. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled 35 new varieties of seeds for an array of crops, many of which are designed to withstand higher temperatures or heavier rainfall.

“ICAR has mounted efforts during past seven years and developed a total of 1,656 crop varieties. Of these, 1,359 varieties have climate resilience traits,” an official of the department of agricultural research and extension, a wing of the Union agriculture ministry, said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak.

These crops include hardier varieties of chickpea, sorghum and mustard, among other crops. The line-up includes eight types of rice, including one non-genetically modified variety that is herbicide tolerant.

In the 151 districts identified to be vulnerable to extreme weather in the country, one village each is being prepared to demonstrate “location-specific technologies” to farmers, the official said.

These include granular strategies. For instance, authorities recently recommended mustard growers in Gujarat’s Anand district to shrink their sowing window to October 10-20 from October-November to avoid attacks by aphids, whose populations are increasing.

In “10 mango-growing locations” of India, “incidence of fruit flies may increase due to projected increase in temperatures in future climate change periods,” a recent advisory to mango growers stated.

Although there are several ongoing mitigation programmes, including the flagship National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture, programmes are often scattered and needs consolidation, said KS Mani, a former agronomist with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021